The quote by Roosevelt was one I had to remind myself often of as a teacher. It didn't matter how much of an expert I was in my subject area if I didn't show how I cared. I would face resistance and felt like I was fighting gravity to get anywhere when I focused on the work. However, when I prioritized relationships with students, students became engaged and were willing to take on more difficult tasks. It was like oiling gears to get everything to operate smoothly. That is the magic of relational leadership!
"People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."
- Theodore Roosevelt
What is relational leadership?
It sounds like a simple principle. Relational leadership, at its heart, means focusing on the people rather than the work. However, the challenge for those of us perfectionists, type-A leaders out there, is that we are driven by performance metrics, and our eyes tend to focus on the tasks that will move our KPIs. We tend to look at our long list of objectives and laser focus on how we will get them done. That's how we rose to a leadership position, so isn't that how we should continue to lead?
Why leaders need to focus on relations over transactions
By focusing on relationships, we help employees feel that we care. According to Gallup, when employees think their leader cares, they are:
three times more likely to be engaged
36% more likely to be thriving
71% less likely to report experiencing burnout
five times more likely to strongly agree they trust the leadership
69% less likely to actively search for a new job
Putting employee relations at the center of everything we do is more likely to impact our performance metrics than any other action we take.
How can I become a more relational leader?
Fortunately, this is a skill we can continually learn and improve upon. Becoming relational is not a one-time fix; always integrate and add little steps. Each action you take toward demonstrating that you care will make a difference.
Relational leadership is based on developing 3 aspects of empathy skills (cognitive, behavioral, and affective) which can be applied in the following ways:
1. Get to KNOW your team members (cognitive empathy)
Most of us already practice this one. Getting to know team members involves simply asking questions and slowing down for water cooler talk. However, we need to place value on this time and be more intentional in seeking out opportunities to learn about our team. Find out about what they do away from work. What are their passions and strengths?
Start a system of tracking what you learn about your team members. You could have notecards, an Excel sheet, or a OneNote notebook (I have used all three). Be intentional about connecting with all your team members and seeking to learn something about them each time. Afterward, (PLEASE don't write notes while talking to them!!) note what you learned, and remember to observe what is unsaid as well. For example, did they grimace when you mentioned preparing an Excel spreadsheet? That gives you a clue that they may be having issues with Excel and could use development on it.
2. SHOW you care (behavioral empathy)
Demonstrate with your body language that you care. People pick up on our body language much quicker than anything we say, so practice open body positions that show you are receptive to people.
Practice looking people in the eyes when they talk to you, nod your head to demonstrate listening, sit next to rather than across from people, lean in, and imitate their gestures. Ask people about themselves. Start meetings with small talk and check-ins.
3. ACT on what you know about them (affective empathy)
Caring is defined as empathy in action. For your people to feel you care, you want them to feel seen, heard, and understood by putting what you have learned about them into action.
Summarize or 'headline' what people say to you to demonstrate that you hear them and understand the point they want to make. Ask follow-up questions on what you have learned about people, recognize their birthdays, change work assignments, and offer professional development based on their goals, interests, or needs.
What will you do today to become a more relational leader? Pick one routine or habit you want to start today and commit to taking one small and easy step to start implementing it.
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Harter, Jim. Gallup.com, Gallup, 18 Mar. 2022, www.gallup.com/workplace/390776/percent-feel-employer-cares-wellbeing-plummets.aspx. Accessed 12 Apr. 2023.